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File/A Te Reo teacher. Photo/Metro

Why changing Māori place names on one of the world's biggest websites isn't so simple

Former New Zealand Wikipedian-at-large Mike Dickison walks us through the slow process of language change on the world’s fifth-most-viewed website, Wikipedia.

As more Kiwis learn Te Reo, we realise long and short vowels can radically change the meaning of a word. Macrons, or tohutō, distinguish wētā (the insect) and weta (what dogs leave on your lawn). For years these were hard to type so we left them off, but now it's as easy as holding down the letter on your phone keyboard. 

Consequently, macrons have quickly spread through publishing and media, spurred by the 2016 Māori Language Act which aimed to revitalise the language and make government departments use it correctly. Almost all news media use macrons, with Stuff starting in 2017 and the NZ Herald in 2018. The Listener, North & South, and Metro adopted macrons in 2018, along with TVNZ. But one of the last bastions of macron resistance for place names is Wikipedia ‒ the world’s fifth-most-viewed website. That’s a concern, and some Kiwi Wikipedians want to change this. 

Currently Wikipedia is inconsistent. "Māori" is spelled with a macron, and the article "New Zealand pigeon" was recently renamed "Kererū". Place names, though, are a different story. When the style guide for New Zealand English usage on Wikipedia was thrashed out back in 2006, macrons weren't in common use and it was noted the "rules of Maori place names are still under discussion" – and there they've remained for 14 years.

Christchurch-based Axel Wilke has put forward a proposal to change those naming conventions to allow macron use for geographic features, based on official names maintained by by the New Zealand Geographic Board. Many place names aren't actually "official", and deciding whether they actually need a macron can involve a lengthy discussion with iwi and hapū about what the name means. But in June last year the Board knuckled down and made 824 Māori place names official, and about 300 of those – like Ōpōtiki, Taupō, and Tīrau – use macrons.

If Wilke's proposal is adopted, nearly 300 place names on Wikipedia will need to be updated. Not all those 300 places will have an article on Wikipedia but they'll be mentioned in numerous other articles, and the cascading consequences will require thousands of corrections. This would mark a big change for New Zealand Wikipedia, and the 100–200 busy volunteers who keep it up to date in their spare time. Hence there's been some resistance.

"Under discussion" since 2007, the macron debate bubbled to the surface on a Wikipedia noticeboard in 2018 over the appropriate name for Paekākāriki / Paekakariki; thousands of words of back-and-forth discussion ensued, even leaking out into the NZ Herald which wrote about Wikipedia's "battle of the macrons", but no real consensus emerged.  What was needed was a clear, well-supported proposal to put to the vote, and that’s what’s happening now.

You might think some editorial board could just declare “most New Zealand publications use macrons, so now all Wikipedia articles will too.” But Wikipedia change happens through long public discussions on Wikipedia talk pages, and anyone can contribute. Discussions go on and on until consensus is thrashed out. Through 19 years of discussion and debate, Wikipedia has accumulated layers and layers of rules, guidelines, precedents, and style guides, often with cryptic names like WP:COMMONNAME and MOS:DIACRITICS.  You’re expected to be familiar with them if you want to contribute, and any proposed changes have to take them into account. All this is invisible to people who just use Wikipedia to look things up, but affects the work thousands of volunteer Wikipedia editors do every day. 

If, following discussion, this change is approved, it will bring Wikipedia into line with the way New Zealand English has changed. Years ago, Pākehā used to talk about “Maoris” and “kakapos”. Because there’s no plural “s” in Te Reo, New Zealand English usage slowly started using the same word for singular and plural, and now we look a bit askance at someone who talks about “the Maoris”.  Macron usage is making the same journey, to “Māori” and “kākāpō”, and Wikipedia, the world's reference book, looks like it's coming along for the ride.

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